Du Jia YiInterview by James Casey. Photograph by Stephen Conrad
Translator Tang is missing. Half an hour late and incommunicado, it appears that Beijing’s notorious traffic has swallowed our trusty interpreter. Sitting opposite, bottle of wine cooler in one hand and cigarillo in the other, is Du Jiayi: actor, director, nightlife impresario, restaurateur, hotelier, and future zookeeper.
In a city bustling with newly-minted entrepreneurs, renaissance man Du represents the spirit of New Beijing. A combination of infectious enthusiasm and charming naivety, Du suggests we start our interview and fill in the gaps upon Tang’s arrival. Giving face and apologizing profusely, I place the tape recorder on the table between us and slowly depress the red button
“So, so, so, fire and so popular. Mei Lanfang’s father is Huaiyang people—Mei Lanfang’s cooking is Huaiyang. Mei Maison opening because I make Mei Langfang film. I think I will give a lot of people talk—who is Mei Lanfang?”
Some background: Du is the owner of Mei Mansion, a restaurant located in an ancient courtyard house, once belonging to Peking opera legend, Mei Lanfang. (Not coincidentally, Du served as producer on Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled, a lush biopic based on the life of Lanfang.) The restaurant serves several lavish tasting menus based on the principles of “Mei’s Cuisine,” which Lanfang defined thus: “First, the raw material of the food should not result in an increase of weight; secondly, the food should be beneficial to the voice; and thirdly, it should have the efficiency of maintaining the health of the skin.”
Often playing the role of women in his performances, Lanfang’s diet was considered key to the maintenance of his feminine figure. Devoid of chillies and spice, for these irritate the eyes, nose and throat, the Huaiyang cuisine that Lanfang prized is famed for its delicacy, sweetness, and nourishing qualities.
“Me sometimes I will so so so love old. I also love the future.”
In addition to his restaurant, Du is also the owner of a coffee shop, Café Lumière, and D+Y, a semi-eponymous bar opposite Mei Mansion. Where the eatery adheres to tradition, his boîte is entirely at speed with contemporary Beijing: modern cocktails amidst oversized plastic dog sculptures, video projections, and an eight-foot-tall birdcage filled with exotic parakeets.
“I love animals because I think people is sometimes so crazy. I have two turtle, four dogs, one cat, three eagles, 100 budgies, and three pigs. I keep them my house. I have two houses—a rent house and buy house. I live in buy house, pigs in rent house. On the weekend I will bring my dogs, to play with my pigs. My dogs so love my pigs. Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Go! Go! Go!”
Du has a yen for housing creatures great and small. The back of his office serves as a refuge for two golden eagles during the winter months—a foster care intake from Inner Mongolian nomads to keep the birds out of the cold. His pigs featured as actors in a comedic film that he directed, and, animal lover that he is, they stuck. The cat is apparently “So cute, so beautiful,” and the dogs include a Doberman, a Boxer, and a Tibetan Mastiff.
“We grow up time, it’s old China. Now, it’s new China. Maybe next is future China. I am born in Shanghai, I’m Shanghai people. I love Beijing, in Shanghai there is no soul—just the business, man. Maybe next year I will make Lumière 2 in Sanlitun. I like opening shop, because this is my holiday. My holiday is opening store. D+Y and maybe I will opening zoo. I love opening zoo, my dream. Hotel and zoo. You will sleep tight, and then tiger—wow!”
Du looks forward to owning a combo menagerie/hotel where the exotic meet the domestic: goats, pigs, birds, and turtles will also be housed on the premises, alongside ferocious feline wake up calls. It could be said that Du’s plans mirror much of the dynamism that propels Beijing ever forward: outlandish ideas that have a habit of working out. Somewhat reasonably, he also plans on opening another outpost of Café Lumière in Sanlitun, Beijing’s shopping and nightlife mecca, and developing a D+Y clothing line, specializing in “old Chinese style” pieces.
“I love Chinese anything! Kung fu, food, Chinese people, Chinese animal—I am Chinese. I love Chinese.”
Like a sleeping dragon, Du’s Chinese pride lay dormant for many years. He credits a visit to New York in awakening his sense of civic championing. Standing at a crosswalk surrounded by New Yorkers of all colors, Du realized that by being Chinese in New York, he was different, and in this difference lay beauty.
“I love to make a dream. You know, my restaurant, Mei Maison, D+Y, and Lumiere Coffee, and my space? I love to dream. I think maybe one life, one dream. You have just one life, in one life you need to make a lot of dreams. Do you know, life has lots of maybes. Maybe I’ll go to England, my car is a mini Cooper. Beijing is so cool!”
Du Jiayi, one twelve millionth of this city’s population, nails it: Beijing is hot. White-hot and ever expanding, an unstoppable force powered by the ambition of its inhabitants. Although if you ask Tang, who sheepishly enters the room as the interview draws to an end, the only thing that can slow you down around here is the traffic.